March 27, 2014
At a press conference on Monday, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that “new analysis” had confirmed Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 had crashed into the southern Indian Ocean. As with other developments in the international mystery, news channels quickly displayed footage of the victims’ families bunkered in a hotel conference room.
Scanning those hotel images more carefully, one might have noticed people milling about in matching blue jackets. One might have seen someone offer a hug to a despondent father or spotted another bringing snacks to a forlorn sister who’d lost her appetite. One might have noticed that those floating, anonymous volunteers were the only people attending to the distressed. Amid all the intrigue, they chose to orbit about the emotional experience of the relatives. One of the participants summarized his tasks as follows: “We hug them, we give them a tissue when they cry, we are physically there to listen to their frustration. We try to talk about something that is more positive.” If this single‑minded commitment to alleviate distress evokes the bodhisattva vow, if it seems to take the first noble truth as a sincere point of departure, that’s because this volunteer—like every other comforting the families—was Buddhist.
They belong to an organization called Tzu Chi, founded in 1966 by Dharma Master Cheng Yen. An ordained nun, Cheng Yen began the group in a small town on the eastern coast of Taiwan. According to its website, the nonprofit started as a network of “housewives who saved two cents from their grocery money each day to help the poor.” It has since grown considerably, establishing 372 offices in 47 countries worldwide to become a reliable source of disaster relief.
Most recently, its volunteers provided support for New York City victims of Hurricane Sandy and jumpstarted the reconstruction of Philippine neighborhoods pummeled by Typhoon Haiyan. In the latter case, Tzu Chi attracted the ire of government officials and peer organizations for its cash-for-work program, paying local villagers twice the minimum wage to help clear debris. Critics said the pay was ultimately counterproductive, as it prevented workers from returning to their normal jobs. Tzu Chi Philippines Executive Director Alfredo Li rebutted by highlighting the temporary nature of the program: “Some people complained 500 pesos is too much, but it is a relief fund. It is not salary, so they should not compare it to the minimum wage of 260 pesos a day.” Perhaps other NGOs were frustrated that the initiative operated independently of coordinated efforts. Perhaps the program truly stalled economic recovery. It’s hard to say.
But one wouldn’t expect a Buddhist organization to acquire the reputation for throwing money at problems. If anything, one would expect the opposite. Buddhist philanthropy sometimes targets the alleviation of psychological distress in lieu of material aid.
Yet in the case of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, no such material conditions were at stake. The families already had food vouchers and hotel rooms, but lacked compassionate attention. With other charities perhaps unwilling to devote resources to a relatively small and financially secure group of people, Tzu Chi flew Malaysian volunteers to the Beijing hotel hours after official word of a lost plane. It was the perfect project for a Buddhist-inflected approach to the alleviation of emotional turmoil. And, by all accounts, the members of Tzu Chi were a helpful steadying force. Dieter Lim Ooi Leong, a 44‑year‑old volunteer, recounted his modest role in the face of utter torment: “They were extremely worried and getting more and more desperate to know where their loved ones were. It was my duty to calm them down and care for them, even with simple gestures like offering them drinks or a hug.” We need no “new analysis” to confirm the value of that.
—Max Zahn, Editorial Assistant